Two cheers for Nick Clegg – at least he’s talking about drugs

He is absolutely right in his analysis that prohibition has failed and addiction must be treated as a health issue


Hooray! Give Nick Clegg a cheer – at last we have a prominent frontline politician talking some sense on drugs. Following a trip to Colombia, the Liberal Democrat leader says the status quo is failing, pointing out cocaine use has trebled in under two decades despite the supposed war on drugs, and that blanket prohibition has caused carnage and conflict around the planet.

He is also right to point out that our timorous politicians talk about drug reform only when they have left office, fearing the media storm that might engulf them. The most interesting recent example of this is Labour’s Bob Ainsworth, whose experiences at the Home Office turned him into an unlikely drugs campaigner; he found the public far more progressive on this issue than he had expected.

This is unsurprising, given that voters live in the real world. The Sixties generation that tuned in and turned on is now claiming free bus passes, while those speed-fuelled punks are becoming grandparents and the rave generation is having children. Recent surveys have found two-thirds of the electorate favour a review of drug laws, and a majority support reform of the cannabis laws – including half of Conservative supporters. Previous studies found particularly strong support among middle-aged women.

Yet Mr Clegg deserves only one cheer for his supposedly bold intervention in this debate – and that is for raising the political profile of an important issue that has been swept aside by most British politicians for too long. This fearful silence was one more reason for the distrust of politicians, one more example of the dislocation between Westminster and the rest of the country. The hope is that after too many unnecessary deaths, the issue of drug reform is at last driven into the centre of political debate.

I am not going to rehearse well-worn arguments in favour of regulating the drug trade and taking it out of the hands of the world’s most lethal gangsters. You only have to look at the deaths of those young people killed by taking what they thought was ecstasy and turned out to be PMA, or to ponder the causes of the collapse of a country once seen to be as stable as Mali. Or indeed to consider the Canute-like hopelessness of trying to prevent the tide of newly-created smart drugs from entering our nation.

The simple fact is that many human beings like taking drugs, whether it is alcohol or ecstasy, cannabis or cocaine. For some people this spirals into devastating and life-threatening addiction, as seen again last week with the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Illegality makes the suffering worse for the addicts themselves, their families and their communities. Since the continuation of this unregulated, underground market is lunacy on so many levels, we can be thankful that a war on drugs, begun by a shamed US president four decades ago, is nearing its end around the world thanks to brave politicians in Latin American and parts of Europe.

Mr Clegg seeks to join their ranks, with his laughable call for Britain to lead the debate in Europe and for Europe to lead the debate in the world. It must have passed him by that two countries on our continent – Portugal and the Czech Republic – have already decriminalised drug use. Or that Uruguay has become the world’s first country to legalise the marijuana trade, while other Latin leaders push even more dramatic reforms. Even the current US president – who has admitted using cocaine, a drug that has caused the imprisonment of thousands of his fellow citizens – now says marijuana is no more lethal than alcohol, after seeing states start permitting pot usage.

If only our Deputy Prime Minister was displaying similar boldness, let alone any genuine liberalism, by demanding radical reform in Britain too. Yet instead of proposing any action, he is resorting to the nervous refrain of calling for more debate on a subject that has been debated for decades. Sadly, he appears to be doing this only for the most naked and short-term political reasons, as part of his desperate efforts to find some definition for his flailing party, blaming Tory coalition partners for refusing to engage in proper discussion.

The irony is that the last front-rank politician who began tiptoeing in this direction is now Prime Minister. When standing for party leader, David Cameron called for the sensible downgrading of ecstasy from a class A drug – but last November his Government announced plans to ban the mild stimulant khat, in defiance of advice from experts and MPs. Yet as some on the right in America have finally realised, regulating the legal use of drugs is the perfect conservative policy since it is tough on crime, saves money, safeguards children, aids development and improves security around the world.

Once again, the Tories touched on something significant in opposition, then dropped the baton in government. Mr Clegg has shown political astuteness by seizing the issue. He is absolutely right in his analysis that prohibition has failed and addiction must be treated as a health issue. Now he needs to show real courage by coming out and stating the obvious: Britain, like all other wealthy nations, should legalise and regulate all drugs.

Twitter: @ianbirrell

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.  

The Only Way is Ethics: The birth of a royal baby will not top the news for long

Will Gore
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk